[Q&A] Cookbook Writer Kate Leahy’s Recipe for Success

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Kate Leahy is a freelance writer and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the co-author, with Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren, of “A16 Food + Wine” (Ten Speed Press, 2008), named the 2009 International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year and recipient of the Julia Child First Book award. She also co-authored “ The Preservation Kitchen” with Paul Virant (Ten Speed Press, 2012); “SPQR” with Shelley Lindgren and Matthew Accarino (Ten Speed Press, 2012); and “Cookie Love” with Mindy Segal (Ten Speed Press, 2015). Prior to writing, Leahy cooked professionally at A16 in San Francisco, Terra in St. Helena, Calif., and Radius in Boston. Read Kate Leahy’s blog at ModernMealMaker.com.

Did your interest in writing or food come first?

The first interest was writing. I majored in history at University of California, Davis, but I was really interested in food. I always have been. I thought I might be a food historian; get a Ph.D. in history and write about food.

I wasn’t interested in working in restaurants then. But I was interested in cooking at home. The more I thought about I wondered, “Do I really know how to cook?”

Are there cooks in the family?

There are. My mother’s a great cook. She grew up in Mexico City in a family that always threw big parties. My father grew up in Chicago and there was always food there, too, but meat-and-potatoes Irish fare. And my father has worked on the ingredient side of the food business throughout his career.

So food was always there but in the 1990s people didn’t think of food as a career as much. It was more an interest. I wasn’t thinking, “Well, I like food. I’m going to become a chef and open some hipster restaurant.

But I knew I had an interest that was more than a hobby; I just didn’t know how to pursue it. Reading Michael Ruhlman’s “The Making of a Chef” and Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” at the same time made me think, “That’s a fascinating world! Maybe I need to learn how to cook first and I’ll figure out the writing part later.”

How did you pursue that? Can you just walk into a restaurant and say, “Hi. I’d like to work here”?

Yes, you can. When I graduated from UC Davis it was at the peak of the first dot.com boom. Anybody worth anything was working for a tech company. I went to a local bakery in Oakland, Calif., near where I grew up. It was the kind of career choice that makes people think, “Gosh, she must not have done well in school.” People wondered what I doing.

But I wanted some hands-on experience so I could figure out if I wanted to take the next steps and learn and do more.

Did you approach them about a job?

I did. The bakery was a favorite of friends of my parents. It had great tarts and cookies. I just went to the counter and asked to fill out a job application and in a few days they said their cookie baker was leaving and asked would I like to learn. That’s what I did.

I worked for a year in the bakery after college and it was probably the most fun I’ve had.

Were you the only woman in the bakery kitchen?

In the Bay Area there were probably more women chefs than in other parts of the country, but there weren’t a lot then. In the bakery I worked the afternoon shift and it was two guys and me. That was great for me because I got a musical education listening to all the underground hip-hop they liked. And it was fun.

Later when I worked in a restaurant in Boston I was the only female line cook who wasn’t involved with the pastry side. It was tough. I think it might be what it’s like to be in the military because it was very regimented: you had a uniform; you had to be there on time and stay late if they asked; you did what you were told. One of the cooks thought he was giving me a compliment when he said, “You’re the only girl we’ve had here who hasn’t cried.” I didn’t quite know how to take that.

Did they push you to see if you’d crack?

Probably but they were like that to guys, too. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t someone who just wanted to dabble in the kitchen. It made you feel that if your were part of the restaurant team, you weren’t a “civilian.”

Not all kitchens are like that, though. When I went back to the West Coast, I worked in a kitchen that much more balanced with as many women as men and it didn’t feel as regimented or cutthroat.

After working kitchens on both coasts, were you thinking that a culinary career was going to be it for you?

I did. I wasn’t writing much doing 16-hour days in the kitchen. I’d think, “Oh, I should keep a journal.” But my writing suffered. That’ll happen when you’re spending long days labeling ingredient containers with masking tape and a Sharpie.

But writing was always in the back of my head and I wanted to get back to it. What happened was the last real restaurant job I had was in San Francisco at a restaurant called A16. A great restaurant. I thought that if it was going to be my career, I’d have to take the next step of becoming a sous chef and then figure out how to raise capital to open my own restaurant. And then when I had my own restaurant I’d have to worry about what happens on a busy Saturday night when the ice machine breaks. I just didn’t know if those were the kinds of problems I’d want to face daily. I didn’t think it was a good for my personality.

I started thinking about writing again and returning to my original plan to write about food. I thought I’d gained enough inside knowledge about the professional kitchen that somebody who didn’t work there wouldn’t have. I needed to get my writing up to speed, though, and I thought graduate school was the right option.

You chose journalism school?

I did. My aunt and uncle had just retired from the Chicago Tribune and they talked to me about their career paths. This was in 2004: It wasn’t that long ago, but things were different then. There was still competition between the daily newspapers and their food sections were important parts.

I applied to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism thinking that if I got accepted, great, I’ll take the plunge, and if I don’t, I’d be happy to stay in San Francisco and cook and learn more.

I was accepted and I was excited to change things up and try something new. Just investing the time and energy in grad school makes you look at your life and ask, “Where are you headed?” Working busy days in a restaurant, you don’t have the time to sit back and look at things that way. Living in a new city helped me grow, too.

Was it shock to revert to academic life after working in the real world?

I wanted to drop out during my first quarter. The cynic in me thinks they talked me into staying because they wanted my tuition money, but I stayed. So much of what I learned there doesn’t apply any more because the journalism model has changed so much. But I met some fantastic people from around the world, not just in journalism. I realized I could love food and journalism but neither had to be my whole life.

That’s important because a lot of people in the restaurant world burn out. That’s easy to do if you’re a pastry chef and all you’re thinking about is how to make that best chocolate cake or ice cream. Or you’re a savory chef always rethinking the ultimate burger or roast chicken.

Did you join the Tribune?

No, I didn’t. But one of the best parts of the Medill program is that we had to create a magazine concept. We had to create not just a prototype issue of the magazine but also a business plan to go along with that. My group decided to create a trade magazine for green interior design. We also had to pitch it to companies and one was Reed Business Information [a major business-to-business magazine publisher].

Through that I met the Reed CEO who connected me with Pat Dailey, the editor-in-chief of their Restaurants & Institutions magazine. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, really, and the magazine didn’t have an opening at that time. But she made a slot for me.

Did it make you feel you were looking in from outside at a world where you used to be inside?

When you’re writing about a world you know, you don’t want to alienate your friends. It’s a delicate balance but what helped was being able, with food stories, to talk to chefs about specific preparations that maybe somebody who hadn’t worked in a kitchen wouldn’t understand. What really is the point of cooking those onions for 20 minutes instead of five? Or how do you keep a dish at its optimal flavor profile throughout a busy service?

So I felt comfortable with that part of the job. What was more difficult was realizing I wasn’t part of that world any more, and that I wanted to be part of that club again. Working at the magazine I was definitely a civilian! That probably took five years before I fully accepted that, “This is what I do now. I’m not going back to the restaurant world.”

What was you first cookbook?

It came from A16, the restaurant in San Francisco where I had worked. I still knew the kitchen well and I would visit them when I was out there. One time I was having dinner there and I looked at the chef and said, “Have you thought about doing a cookbook?” He said, “It sounds like fun. Figure out the financials. I think the wine director would want in, too, so let’s talk about it.”

So I bumbled around and tried to figure out how to put together a cookbook proposal. I got lucky because Ten Speed Press accepted it. Within a few months we had a book deal. Thinking back, I wonder, “How did we do that?” It was the right time because Italian food was getting on people’s radar, the restaurant was popular, and the wine director was doing interesting things, so it all came together to make it of interest. But I got lucky.

Did it change how you read cookbooks? Or did you avoid others’ work so you could set your own style?

I wish I could have set my own style. But I was too scared to think what that style would be. I was reading everybody. I would read 10 different recipes on how to braise octopus and then think how they all did it and how best for me to write it. It took me so long. I just didn’t have the base for it.

Recipe writing is its own kind of writing. Once you learn the fundamentals, it can go pretty quickly, but I was still learning. Do you “heat the pot over medium-low heat” or is it “Over medium-low heat, heat the pot”?

When I look now at the manuscript we turned in, I’m so embarrassed. There was red ink all over the pages. The copy editor saved my life with that book. But it was the best way for hands-on learning about how to write a cookbook.

Did you have a separate test space or were you testing all the recipes at home?

I was testing recipes in an apartment in Chicago that didn’t have a dishwasher and had a sink barely enough for filling a pot. It was a bare-bones kitchen but I figured that if a recipe could work there it could work in any home kitchen.

Once I wrote and tested the recipe I sent them to someone in San Francisco who tested them again. There was a learning curve on what would work for the tester and what in my recipes needed more explanation. I can’t imagine doing it a different way.

Were you still working at the restaurant magazine while writing the cookbook?

Yes. It was hard. With the cookbook, I also was learning to learn how to write in the chef’s [Nate Appleman’s] voice and the wine director’s [Shelley Lindgren’s] voice. We did a first-person voice in the cookbook for the wine and food sections, so I needed to sound like them, not like me. It took a lot of rewriting to get right and I was fortunate to work with a good editor for the cookbook, just I had been at the magazine.

The lot of cookbook writers is that they do so much of the work and yet the A16 cookbook cover says “with Kate Leahy.” Was it difficult to not get the byline as you would with a magazine article?

It never was something that gave me pause. You can be bolder sometimes when you’re writing under someone else’s name. You can think of things that another person would find interesting that you might not come up with on your own. Now thinking about it, writing my own cookbook might be really hard because I couldn’t rely on other people’s stories. I’d have to dig into what I know.

I will say that I found out the hard way that when you’re a co-writer and not a ghost writer, you want it to read “and Kate Leahy” so you get the copyright and you get to be in the Library of Congress listing. It might not affect how much money you get in the long run but having “and” is important to me now. “With” doesn’t carry as much weight.

How tempted are you to do a cookbook under just your name?

I wrote a proposal for one and it was shopped around and politely declined. But I was busy writing someone else’s cookbook then so I didn’t lose sleep over it. Writing that proposal and coming up with my own subject without the platform of a chef or restaurant owner provides was difficult. I’m not a household name; I’m not going to sell 100,000 copies. So the subject has to be strong enough to carry it.

I’d like to do my own some day, but I’m perfectly content working on projects that are interesting rather than on projects that do something to create a personal brand. I’m playing the long game.

What’s your current project?

Right now I’m working on a cookbook of Burmese cuisine with a very popular San Francisco restaurant called Burma Superstar. It will come out in March 2017 and be about translating the restaurant’s flavors and dishes for home cooks. It also has a travel component so I’ve had the good fortune to go to Myanmar twice in the past year.

Experiencing the country with the owner of Burma Superstar who was born there and speaks Burmese is something you can’t experience as a tourist. It’s a challenge because I’m trying to get recipes from people who speak may three or four languages but English may not be their strongest. Getting the details right in a cuisine that’s new to me is challenging.

It has taken me out of my comfort zone, but I’m hoping it’ll come together. Without the trips, I’d be pretty lost, I think, but with the trip I’ve been able to see and taste dishes enough to know when they’re really authentic or if they have been Americanized.

Right now Burmese cuisine here is in the “spaghetti and meatballs” phase Italian restaurants were in decades ago. Every Burmese restaurant has the same dishes but when you go to Myanmar you discover there’s a lot more we could bring to the table.

If you could learn one other international cuisine, what would it be?

I would love to learn more about Mexico. My mother lived there for 18 years; my aunt lives in Mexico. She and my uncle run a small restaurant outside Mexico City. When I go there I see fruits and vegetables I’ve never seen before. I don’t know what the angle would be for a cookbook but I’d love to learn more about Mexico.

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